European Commission Vice President Dubravka Šuica reflected on challenges facing democracy amid demographic changes in Europe at a Harvard Law School event Thursday.
The talk, which was co-sponsored by the Harvard European Law Association, was part of the “Europe in the World Seminar” — a series of events hosted by the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies whose goal is to provide a forum for discussion of European affairs and global issues.
Šuica, who previously served as a member of the European Parliament, leads the Commission’s work on deliberative democracy and demography. As part of the European Union’s executive branch, the Commission proposes policy and executes decisions made by the European Parliament and European Council.
“Our role is to defend democracy, since it is never a finished product but one that needs to evolve and to be adapted to the realities,” Šuica said during the event.
One of the Commission’s priorities, according to Šuica, is to bridge the “information gap” between politicians and citizens by providing Europeans with opportunities to influence policymaking directly.
“Free and fair elections are crucial, but they are not enough to ensure engagement with citizens and to ensure that they feel well served by democracy,” Šuica said.
As Commission vice president, Šuica led the Conference on the Future of Europe, a yearlong initiative that aimed to provide citizens “a say on how the EU is run and what it does,” according to the Commission’s website.
The Commission convened 800 randomly selected citizens, ranging from 16 to 86 years old, from across the European Union to share their visions for the future.
“I have seen with my own eyes the thirst for democratic participation that so-called ‘ordinary citizens’ have,” Šuica said of the Conference.
According to Šuica, the Commission is focused on creating a “better and more efficient” policymaking process through institutional reforms, including a full transition to qualified majority voting in the European Council.
Currently, foreign and security policy in the Council can pass only with the unanimous agreement of all 27 member states. But most policy areas require the lower threshold of a qualified majority vote — whereby legislation passes with the approval of 55 percent of member states collectively representing at least 65 percent of the total EU population.
“I think we have to be faster in bringing decisions because in the States, if your president signs the bill, tomorrow it’s operational,” Šuica said. “In Europe, you have to go to 27 capitals to see what is their opinion.”
Pointing to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Šuica said imposing sanctions on Russia “was not an easy task” for European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who had to negotiate a unanimous agreement among 27 EU leaders.
Šuica noted that although “big member states,” including Spain, France, and Germany, support qualified majority voting, smaller members fear it would decrease their voting power — posing a challenge for the reform, which must achieve unanimity to pass.
Along with democratic challenges, Šuica discussed how the Commission is responding to demographic changes throughout Europe.
Following a trend of depopulation in rural regions, Šuica said the Commission developed a long-term plan to make these regions “attractive and prosperous again.”
“People leave villages and go to metropolitan areas because they don’t have infrastructure,” Šuica said. “When I say infrastructure, it’s not only waterways and sewage systems. It’s not only bus stops and the groceries. It is also broadband internet and coverage with 5G.”
In an effort to expand connectivity, the European Commission offers funding to member states to support the rollout of high-speed coverage in remote regions — which Šuica said will create new jobs and incentivize residents to stay in the countryside.
Šuica said she ultimately hopes that with technological advancements, both urban and rural areas will thrive.
“The aspiration is that in a few decades, we will have autonomous electric vehicles carrying people and goods around our clean and unpolluted cities, productive rural areas,” Šuica said. “This should not be viewed as science fiction.”
—Staff writer Caroline E. Curran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.